Saturday, May 07, 2016

Steiglitz by Janet Malcolm

Steiglitz almost single-handedly dislodged photography from its position at the turn of the century as a kind of genteel hobby, and propelled it directly into the mainstream of modern art. This achievement was carried out in two stages, buttressed by two ideas. At the time, the most advanced photographers were modelling their work on Symbolist, Impressionist, and Pre-Raphaelite paintings, and Stieglitz's first move (in 1902.) was to give this tendency a name—the Photo-Secession. Like Lawrence Alloway's coinage "Pop Art," the label gave definition and direction to something that was not all that definite and direct, and provided both practitioners and public with a point of departure. Today, the Photo-Secession is largely viewed as a misguided attempt to make photography an art form by turning it into a bastard form, and in the light of sub-sequent achievements—by Strand, Evans, Kertesz, Cartier-Bresson, and other modern masters—the portentous, misty landscapes and the blurred, symbolic portraits (achieved by out-of-focus lenses and manipulated negatives and prints) of sad, gowned women [4] and marmoreal, naked children look strained and enervated. But if one goes back to the photography before the Photo-Secession—to the ludicrous anecdotal "art photographs" like Rejlander's "The Two Ways of Life", and to the boring geography-book pictures of foreign cities and landscapes—the pictorial school assumes its proper significance. Although photography soon went "straight" (i.e., photographers put their lenses back into focus and stopped scratching their negatives and smearing their prints with gum bichromate), it has retained the pictorial formalism brought to it by the Photo-Secessionists. What has changed is the literal-ness of photography's relationship to painting: photographs no longer exhibit the surface qualities of paintings and drawings. But they do retain paintings' formalism, which Stieglitz saw, correctly, as the key to photography's liberation from its mechanical basis and its transformation into an art. His own early photographs--alive and spontaneous in a way that none of his contemporaries could match—invariably displayed this quality in its strictest application. Pictorial formalism as a pre-requisite for all else was the real Lesson of the Master. Stieglitz's second, and truly extraordinary, idea was that of showing the most advanced painting and sculpture of the day at the gallery he had rented at 291 Fifth Avenue to display the work of the Photo-Secessionists Picasso, Cezanne, Picabia, Rodin, Brancusi, Marin, Hartley, Dove, Maurer, and O'Keeffe were among the artists (then almost unknown in America) that Stieglitz began showing a good eight years before the Armory Show of 1913 "brought" modern art to America. During most of its existence, 291 was the only place in New York where modern art was regularly exhibited, and Stieglitz's pioneering in this regard has been widely acknowledged. What has been insufficiently acknowledged is the importance for photography that lay in the hanging of strange and difficult abstractions alongside the Whistler-like and Redon-like Photo-Secession works. This established photography's association with mod-ernism, which we now take for granted but which was scarcely a historical necessity. It was, rather, a historical accident—the fact that a man of Stieglitz's extraordinary intellectual forward-ness (his personal forwardness is something else again) should have entered photography when he did, when there were com-bination photography-and-bicycling clubs and a museum would as soon have hung a potholder as a photograph. That the Museum of Modern Art formed a department of photography in 1940, that most museums now show photographs, and that an almost automatic interest in photography exists among people who consider themselves advanced—all this goes back to him. Stieglitz was born in 1864, in Hoboken, of German-Jewish parents, and he grew up in a well-to-do, culture-centered household in which, Miss Norman writes, "neither the question of 'being Jewish' nor the meaning of the term was dis-cussed." In 1881, his father decided that he had made enough money (four hundred thousand dollars) and took his wife and six children to Europe for an indefinite period. Alfred enrolled as a student of mechanical engineering at the Berlin Polytechnic, but soon washed out. One day, he saw a camera in a shop window and bought it; before long, he was studying photog-raphy at the Polytechnic with a professor of photo-chemistry named Herman Wilhelm Vogel. In 1887, he won first prize in a "holiday work" competition of the London Amateur Photogra-pher for a picture he took in Italy and called "A Good Joke." The judge was Peter Henry Emerson, one of the earliest of out-of-focus pictorialists and a champion of the idea of photogra-phy as an art form (but who, in a curious reversal, suddenly changed his mind, declaring in 1891, in a black-bordered pam-phlet entitled The Death of Naturalistic Photography, that photography "must always rank the lowest of all the arts," adding, "I deeply regret that I have come to this conclusion"). In 1887, however, Emerson was still enamored of photography, and he was so impressed with Stieglitz's work that he wrote and told him that his entries were the only good ones in the entire competition.
Here and there in Stieglitz's writings one gets a whiff of the hidden connection, and in one place—an account of the circumstances under which he took his great photograph "The Steerage"—one feels that one has almost grasped it. He begins with characteristic pettishness:
In June 1907 my wife, our daughter Kitty, and I sailed for Europe. My wife insisted on going on a large ship, fashionable at the time. Our initial destination was Paris. How distasteful I found the atmosphere of first class on that ship, especially since it was impossible to escape the nouveaux riches. I sat in my steamer chair much of the time the first days out with closed eyes. In this way it became possible to avoid seeing faces that gave me the cold shivers. But those strident voices. Ye gods!
Stieglitz presently gets up and takes a walk on the deck. Then, happening to glance down into the steerage, he sees his great picture:
The scene fascinated me: a round straw hat; the funnel leaning left, the stairway leaning right; the white drawbridge, its railings made of chain; white suspenders crossed on the back of a man below; circular iron machinery; a mast that cut into the sky, completing a triangle. I stood spellbound for a while. I saw shapes related to one another—a picture of shapes and, under-lying it, a new vision that held me: simple people; the feeling of ship, ocean, sky; a sense of release that I was away from the mob called "rich." Rembrandt came into my mind and I wondered would he have felt as I did.
Stieglitz was able to race back to his cabin, grab his camera, and take the picture (God is good to artists: no one had moved) that is one of photography's masterpieces [7]. The peripatetic account of its creation—the abrupt transformation of the languid snob into the super-artist--is one of art history's illuminations.

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